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What is 5G and how far are we from rollout?

4G's successor promises 1ms latency and multi-Gbit/sec bandwidth, but can it deliver?

The UK’s first 5G network was activated in May 2019 by EE, marking a summer in which the four major telecommunications providers raced to switch on their networks as early as possible. Lewis Hamilton helped switch on Vodafone’s network for second place, with Three and O2 taking longer to launch their full 5G networks.

Since then, smartphone manufacturers have caught up and most new mobile phones released today support 5G in some way, compared to just a small percentage of devices when the networks first went live. 

Businesses are rapidly curating more tech and generating more data, which is driven by the rise in internet-connected technology known as the Internet of Things (IoT). This shift has required a faster, stronger, and more reliable internet connection, with 5G finally appearing to be the answer to this challenge.

5G is the fifth-generation technology standard for cellular networks. Designed to provide average download speeds of 150-200Mbps, 5G is around 10 times faster than its predecessor, 4G, and more than 30 times faster than 3G. At its peak, 5G speeds can reach above 1Gbps, allowing users to download a full HD film in around three minutes. By comparison, downloading such a file using 4G would take more than 15 minutes.

4G will fade away

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5G provides low latency, faster download speeds, and more connectivity and capacity for billions of devices, especially in the areas of IoT, virtual reality (VR), and artificial intelligence (AI). 5G sensors connected to these systems bring about better-informed and faster business decisions.

However, 5G is still far from being fully-deployed, with 4G still being in high demand.

"While 5G demand is still gathering momentum, 4G will remain an important part of the wireless ecosystem," says Tata Communications COO John Hayduk. "But it's expected that by 2025 investment and innovation in 4G will slow down as 5G takes prominence. In tandem, older 2G and 3G systems will begin to disappear from some markets altogether."

5G will be expensive

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Current 5G mobile plans tend to be more expensive, and the technology remains unavailable for large swathes of the country. Mobile operators will charge their earliest customers a lot for 5G while they try to get a quick return on their spectrum investments, Hayduk says.

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"In Europe and the US, operator strategies that are not built around 5G are rare. It strikes me however that it is bold to assume that consumers will take up 5G the moment it's available and that 5G will underpin the modern digital business from day one. The economics of providing 5G connectivity will make it difficult for mobile operators to drive costs low enough to make moving to 5G tempting for users," he said.

"Operators are spending huge amounts of money just for the spectrum space to provide 5G connectivity, and they will have to pass the cost on to their customers. Increasingly price-sensitive consumers won't stand for price rises and will stick with 4G. They will change their behaviours, picking and choosing which apps are stationary and which are mobile. They will use WiFi for data-hungry video and VR apps, created for a 5G world, which will remain stationary."

5G standards are needed

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Although a number of telecoms have already rolled out 5G for their customers, Dr William Webb, a fellow at the Institute for Electrical and Electronic Engineering and CEO of the Weightless SIG, says that common standards are needed if 5G is to evolve.

"Because the definition of 5G is so vague, it's hard to say far we are from rollout. If 5G is just whatever we rollout in say 2020, then by definition we're three years from rollout – but what that will be and how different it will be from what we have today? Korea Telecom claims it will deploy 5G this year, ready for the Winter Olympics, and Verizon also aims to start fibre-replacement deployment this year or next," he says.

"However, without any standards, whatever they deploy is not a globally agreed solution. Some suggest that a 'real' 5G – with a carefully developed and worthwhile new technology – might not occur until 2025."

The International Telecommunication Union – a wing of the UN dedicated to the oversight of telecommunications technology across the world - answered one of the crucial questions around 5G: what it actually is. In a draft document, the organisation stated that in order to qualify as 5G, a network cell must deliver a minimum peak data rate for downloads of 21GB/sec and an uplink peak data rate of 10GB/sec. Maximum latency is also set at 4ms.

This means the minimum standards are set for the UK, although of course, providers could exceed them.

5G will be huge for IoT

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The internet has grown exponentially since its birth and with the rise of connected technology and appliances, it's set to get even bigger. The Internet of Things (IoT) is an industry that'll be worth trillions by the 2020s, and billions of everyday objects will be connected to the web. To support this new revolution, a stronger, denser type of mobile connectivity is needed, and 5G will soon fill this void.

According to Mark Skilton, a professor of practice at Warwick Business School,  5G is designed to support the future technological economy. 4G has been paramount in the rise of mobile apps and social media networks, but 5G has a major role in supporting the future of connected tech such as driverless cars and smart sensors.

"It enables real-time mission, critical rapid response – such as connected self-driving cars, Internet of things sensors, mobile devices that will drive connected buildings, smart cities, and new skills and services."

According to Rahul Patel, senior vice president and general manager of Qualcomm’s Connectivity & Networking business unit, we are only at the beginning of the full adoption of 5G:

“You will see 5G in cars, in industrial IoT, and a lot of infrastructure, and then there's medical applications. The curve for adoption and deployment and innovation on 5G is still ahead of us,” he told IT Pro at the 2022 Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.

The innovation in 5G will “transcend a wider set of application spaces and market segments with 5G because there's so much more to offer," he added.

An example of such is the deployment of 5G at the UK’s largest container port, which will use 5G-enabled IoT sensors to predict maintenance of Felixstowe port’s quay cranes and provide communications for remote control yard cranes. The project is part of the government's 5G Testbeds and Trials programme (5GTT) also saw £28 million of investment awarded to nine nationwide 5G projects that included trailing 5G-powered cargo ports, as well as improving visitor experiences at the O2 Arena, MK Dons stadium, and the Eden Project.

When will 5G be available to all in the UK?

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In 2016, the UK government dedicated £16 million for 5G research conducted by the Universities of Bristol and Surrey, as well as King's College London, with the intention of delivering an end-to-end 5G trial network by 2018.

The following year, then-chancellor of the exchequer Philip Hammond emphasised the importance of investing in new technologies and improving the UK’s networking infrastructure. Out of the £500 million budgeted by the government for new technological innovations, £160 million was set aside for new 5G infrastructure. This included a £10 million project with the NCSC as well as £5 million for trial of 5G networks.

That same month, network operator EE became the first UK provider to deliver a successful 5G lab test, achieving impressive download speeds of 2.8Gbps. Also at the time, EE, as well as Three, were embroiled in legal proceedings with regulator Ofcom, with the two network operators being against the regulations surrounding the planned 5G spectrum auction. Three tried to have a 30% cap placed on the auction, a move that would have blocked larger providers from bidding against smaller rivals.

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However, EE, owner of the largest 4G network at the time, argued that it shouldn't be restricted by a cap. Ofcom accused EE and Three of derailing the rollout of the technology, as the spectrum auction was widely considered to be a major step towards building the groundwork for 5G.

The case was escalated to the Court of Appeal, where, in February 2018, a swift deliberation upheld Ofcom’s decision to continue with the auction.

Nonetheless, despite the final ruling, the ensuing legal battles became a clear sign that the government was finding it challenging to balance the need for 5G innovation with the demands of mobile operators.

The final UK spectrum auction took place in April 2021 which left all major operators satisfied with the outcome. The £1.38 billion auction of 5G spectrum saw EE and Telefónica-owned O2 spend the most on available spectrum, £475 million and £448 million respectively. Three bought £280 million worth and Vodafone spent the least with £176.4 million.

With the auction complete, network operators will use the new spectrum to deliver advanced mobile services across the UK. But over the course of the next few years, the same issues that hampered previous development will still make innovation difficult, such as access to land to build new infrastructure. Ofcom is also still yet to auction off any millimetre wave (mmWave) spectrum - the fastest spectrum available to the 5G network promising the fastest speeds - so long-term development is still certainly on the cards.

A 2021 Ofcom report estimated with “high to very high confidence” that 5G reached around half of all outdoor premises in the UK. The actual range was broad, 42-57%, but it represents a marked improvement over 2020’s figures which stood at just 30% of the UK.

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